Old Tools in a New Day
by Khoke & Ida Livingston, with Ammon Weeks, of Davis City, IA
When I was a child, my father cut all our wood by hand. A neighbor, standing by watching him one day asked, “Why don’t you get a chainsaw? Just think how much more wood you could cut in a day, the extra time you would have to spend with your family, and you could even read your Bible more.” The day did come when my father got a chainsaw, and he did cut many times more wood than before. As he reflected on the conversation he’d had with the neighbor of his youth, he noted that for all the wood he was able to cut with relative ease, he somehow spent less time than ever with his family and certainly didn’t find occasion to read his Bible more.
A person might ask, why would someone in this day and time choose to cut wood with manual power? Another person might ask why a person would choose to curl barbells in an endless number of reps. Once upon a time, cutting wood by hand was part of a way of life that naturally kept people physically fit. This is one of a number of reasons why a person may choose in this age to exert themselves in this way.
Katherine McCoy is a high school math teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Pre-Covid, Katherine would work out in a gym to relieve the tension built up in a day from teaching classes full of teenagers. During the Covid shutdowns, the stress did not lessen, it simply changed, only now the gym was not available. So, she bought a small bow saw and a nice splitting maul and began cutting up fallen limbs and dead trees in the neighborhood and local park. Having no need for the wood herself, she donated it.
There are those who learn the art simply to keep it alive. There are others who choose to incorporate this skill as a way of life. Classified in the latter, Khoke and I do this in part to resist a dependence on petroleum products. All of our firewood is cut by crosscut or bow saw.
After Khoke and I married, I began my own personal education on cutting wood by hand. I really don’t do much of it, but I help Khoke cut down trees and will spend a day now and then helping log them out and/or just cutting the wood into chunks with him. The lengths we go to for quality time…
The first time I went out with him on such a venture, he needed another set of hands on the two-man crosscut. I had not yet done such a thing and I picked the biggest tree he had slated to cut as the first to do. It had a big fork near its base, the top was showing signs of blight and was beginning to die. Quick to jump first and ask later I soon discovered Khoke’s hesitation to begin with this tree. The base was so broad (and oak to boot), that my arms, legs, and lower back were threatening to mutiny on me by the time the tree laid down. The highlight of the experience is that every other tree seemed easy after that.
Khoke cut the oak into a couple lengths to saw into lumber and the rest of the tree was sliced into rounds for firewood. I cut wood all day long, blissfully unaware that Khoke was trying not to watch as I totally destroyed his bow saw blade. Beginners are hard on blades of any kind.
Lying in bed that night I became acutely aware of exactly which muscles I had used all day. Muscles I previously had no idea existed. It was enlightening. So was peeling myself out of bed the next morning to do it again.
To those who wish to learn to cut wood by hand, the hardship can seem overwhelming. Khoke’s dad, Jeff Livingston, taught himself to cut and split wood. One generation’s gift to the next is the ability to stand on its shoulders and not have to relearn everything from the beginning. Watching his father as a child, Khoke doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t know how to cut wood. He simply remembers being too small to. When he was big enough to use a bow saw, he and his cousin Nate spent hours cutting wood for fun. His father often had a pile of downed trees and limbs to cut up near the house. Having this pile helped keep the boys from taking liberties and trying to cut down random trees in the nearby woods.
In the coming pages I will try to bring some new light and life to an old skill and maybe someone will decide to pick up a crosscut or bow saw instead of a barbell and give it a try.
A bow saw is a type of light weight saw with a replaceable blade. It is used for cutting smaller wood, usually five inches in diameter and less. The sharper the blade the better it can handle a larger diameter. Anything larger than a 5-inch diameter is easier to cut using a one-man crosscut. Bow saws are often used for cutting the limbs off small trees. Though they can technically cut larger wood than the five inches, they cannot cut anything larger than the bow of the saw.
The most common sizes are 24”, 30”, and 36” bow saws. The 24-inch saws make a good child size saw. A 30-inch saw works well for the average adult and a 36-inch saw requires a little more strength and confidence to work well.
To help your saw blade maintain a long and happy life, do not bear down very hard on the saw as you cut. It is natural to push the saw through the wood and drag it back. Focus rather on cutting both ways instead of cutting only on the forward motion. Let the blade cut with the weight of the saw, it does not need much more downward pressure than this. Just enough to keep it from bouncing. You are simply moving the saw back and forth. Try to keep your strokes even.
When a saw pinches it doesn’t slide through the wood well and catches, jerking to a stop now and then. This saw doesn’t have enough set. When a saw is set correctly, every other tooth is bent slightly to the right and the alternate teeth are bent slightly to the left. Make note that the bend is very slight. This makes a wider cut through the wood so the blade fits easily and doesn’t have too much friction. When a saw has too much set it cuts too wide of a groove in the wood and makes sawing unnecessarily hard.
Most bow saw blades you buy are set only on one side. The teeth bend only one way. A convenience for the manufacturer, not the buyer. These blades will make a curved cut, cutting at a slant through the wood. Take the blade and cut a piece of wood to see which way the cut slants then set every other tooth in the opposite direction, and it will cut straight. A company called Bahco sells good quality bow saw blades and they are almost always set correctly. If your supply store does not carry this brand, they should be able to order it in.
When ordering bow saw blades you will note upon observation that some have rakers and some do not. Khoke and Jeff tend to prefer the bow saw blades without the rakers. When you are cutting off limbs that are less than two inches in diameter or you are cutting very hard or dry wood, the rakers leave a gap between the teeth and tend to cause the saw to jump or bounce some and does not cut as smoothly. The blades that have no rakers, have the teeth act as rakers. This blade works well for any type of limb.
A bow saw cuts such a narrow groove in the wood that the raker is more of a formality than an aid. The blades with rakers tend to dull faster than those without because they have fewer cutting teeth that have to work harder and then wear out sooner.
Bow saw blades are made of a metal that is too hardened to sharpen with a file. If a person wished to sharpen these, one would need to grind them or use a diamond file. We just buy new blades when we need them. In the meantime, we try to make them last as long as possible.
Our friend Ammon Weeks likes to use a homemade 48-inch bow saw that he made. A length of blade repurposed from a bandsaw mill was used for the blade of this saw. This can cut fairly large wood and takes a good deal of strength to use solo. It works best as a two-man bow saw. Ammon and his son Ashar often will saw with it together. Although Ammon has more than enough strength to run the saw alone, having Ashar on the other end stabilizes the saw. Ashar however is no slouch at cutting wood and in this, Ammon has found an activity that has created a bonding father and son time that his younger sons are eager to participate in as well.
Have you ever walked around an auction or through an old antique store and saw a pile of crosscut saws? If you look closely, you will notice different saws have different lengths, two saws may be the same size but have different weights. All of these differences are important.
If you live out west, you may come across more Lance tooth or Perforated Lance tooth saws. If you live among the deciduous forests of the eastern United States, you’ll just want to oil these two types and not use them more than you need to. These two are designed to cut softwood like Pine, Redwood, Fir and even Cottonwood. But for hardwood that you find in the Eastern US, like Oak, Hickory, Maple, and Walnut, these saw types would be too jumpy to bring much satisfaction.
A Lance tooth or Perforated Lance tooth saw each have 4 teeth and then a deep gullet on either side of the raker. Softwood compresses easily. When the tooth slices over it, a little wood springs back up right after the tooth passes, this is then cut by the next tooth, and the next and the next. Then the gullet catches and carries the sawdust and the raker peels up any ridge left by the set of the saw.
Softwood tends to need more set to make room for the saw because the wood tends to spring back. If there isn’t enough set, there will be more friction and the saw will “bind” or get caught. Set is when the alternating teeth tip out to open the groove, they cut just a little wider so the plane of the saw fits better in the cut.
Champion tooth and Tuttle tooth saws tend to be more of an all-purpose saw. These saws have two teeth between rakers. Hardwoods do not compress as easily and thus do not spring back as much to pinch the blade. These saws serve the hardwoods well. The Lance tooth types have too large of a gullet on either side of the raker to work well for hardwoods. This design that works so well on softwoods makes the saw jumpy when you try to use it on hardwood. The Champion and Tuttle tooth saws have a narrower gullet and thus a smoother stroke when used on hardwoods. They can also saw softwood; they just need more set.
Both one-man and two-man saws are technically interchangeable. Sort of. Most one-man saws have a hole near the end of the saw. This is to fit a “post” handle, a temporary handle that converts it to a two man. Handy for cutting down firewood trees with a friend.
If you take one of the handles off a two-man crosscut and use the saw vertically it should work as a one man. It does not work well if not perfectly vertical because the end will dip and cause it to oscillate wildly as you pull it back and forth. If you are going to do any real amount of solo sawing then you will want to have a one man crosscut.
There are felling saws, these are narrow two-man saws, their lightweight flexibility and concave back make it easier to cut down trees. These are made for horizontal cuts but work fine for vertical cuts too. A bucking two-man saw is designed for cutting rounds and works best for vertical cuts. This saw is wider and heavier. The extra weight pushes down on the teeth scooping into more wood with each stroke. These saws can be used interchangeably for horizontal or vertical cuts, they do however work best according to how they are designed.
What size one-man saw should you look for? There are some factors to consider, the length of your stroke and the strength you have built up to use it. Generally, 3-1/2 to 4 foot saws are a good size to learn on. Being as short as I am anything over a 4 foot saw really is excessive for me. Khoke uses a 4-1/2 foot saw and could easily use a 5 foot saw, but these are harder to find. The longer the saw the more teeth are cutting and so the faster the wood is cut through.
Khoke used a light weight Tuttle tooth one-man saw for years. Seizing a chance to get a better saw, he did, and got a heavier weight Champion tooth saw. This saw was a little longer and heavier, but Khoke was still surprised that it took him two years to build up the strength to use it with the ease of the former saw. Once there however he was able to cut more wood on average in a day.
As a person selects and then uses a saw, they need to be mindful of their stroke. A 5-foot saw is not designed to make a 2-foot stroke. It is designed to make a 5-foot stroke. Your stroke is not just done by your arm, your whole body can do a rocking swinging motion to maximize your stroke. If a 5-foot saw is too long for the stroke you are able to accomplish, get a shorter saw. Too large of a saw makes for extra work and unnecessary hardship.
Wood can have compression. Compression crowds the saw and can either cause excess friction or it can pinch the saw and cause it to “bind” (jerk to a stop). Any type of wood that is supported at both ends and then cut in the middle will tip in once enough is cut that the remaining wood does not have the strength to sustain the gap caused by the saw. It will tip in and pinch the saw. This can happen when cutting down a tree too. A leaning tree will have compression on the inside of the lean.
Before your blade gets pinched too much, take an axe and chop into the cut to act as a wedge so your saw doesn’t pinch as you finish cutting the piece of wood.
Another way compression issues occur are when you are cutting softwood. The wood cuts easily but also gives easily. The wood that gave way (compressed) instead of cutting will spring back, this can pinch the saw and make it difficult to cut through. Wood like this needs to be cut with more set in the teeth, meaning they need to be tipped out more to make a wider groove and then the blade above the teeth will fit better as it follows the teeth through the log.
Softwood and Sticky Sap
Speaking of softwood, loggers of old would carry a flask of kerosene with them when they were sawing pine or other softwood that gummed up their saws with pitch or resin. When the saw began to stick because of the coating of the sap, they would take out their flask of kerosene and coat the saw and then continue cutting. The kerosene acted as paint thinner.
Wood and the Crosscut
They say cutting wood with a crosscut warms you twice. First as you cut the wood, and second when you sit by the fire while the wind is howling outside.
Because it is strenuous labor that generates a lot of body heat, Khoke and Ammon prefer to cut their wood in the winter. Preferably when the temperatures are between 10 degrees and 25 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures are above 30 degrees, they strip down to tee shirts and still feel too warm. Working in cooler temperatures definitely increases their comfort. Though they have cut wood in temperatures closer to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, they do not prefer it because the snacks they graze on through the day tend to freeze solid and that is just not as fun as it sounds.
This wintertime cutting is not cutting wood for immediate use. It is to cut wood a year or two in advance.
Here in southern Iowa, we have an Oak blight that swept through killing the red oak as it went. As these trees on our property began to die, they were cut before they died completely so the lumber would be salvaged and then the rest of the tree was cut into firewood while the wood was green and easy to cut. We also have what is called the Dutch Elm disease sweep through and kill the White Elm as it goes. These too, we try to cut up before they fully die.
One may not notice it much when using a chainsaw, but when using a crosscut there is a stark difference between cutting green (live) wood versus dry (dead) wood. A dead tree or one that has been cut and left to dry will be much harder to cut than a freshly felled live tree. Dry wood will also dull your blade faster.
Even among the green wood, there is variance in ease of cutting. Oak is a very hard wood in general, so is hickory, locus, and Osage orange. These certainly take more effort to cut up, but once cut and split they are also a much higher quality wood when burned. They burn hot and for a long time, holding coals well.
Using a Sawbuck and Crosscut
A sawbuck is a wooden frame that supports a log or length of wood. The more weight on the sawbuck the better (within the limits of the sawbuck obviously), and it is important for the log to be well balanced. The weight of the log helps keep it from rolling as you cut. If you cut each round off as you go, by the time you get to the last three pieces there isn’t enough weight to hold, and the piece can roll as you try to cut it.
Khoke slices each firewood length about 3/4 of the way through, all the way down the length of the log. Then he alternates from one side to the other, cutting off the chunks the rest of the way to keep the sawbuck balanced.
When using a crosscut saw, cut a groove in where you want to start the cut and then keep the strokes as fluid as possible. This isn’t pushing the saw through the wood, stopping, pulling it back, stopping, and then pushing again. Ideally you use almost a circular motion. Khoke pushes the saw through tipping the end down just slightly, as he pulls back, he brings the handle down and just past his hip. From here, never stopping, it circles upward a little and then forward in the push.
Ideally, every tooth on the saw will be cutting; pull that tip all the way back until it disappears into the log before pushing again. A 4-foot saw is designed to cut a 4-foot stroke. You want to keep your blade as perfectly vertical as possible. If there is any angle to the cut the tip can vibrate.
When cutting with a two-man, you also want to aim for that fluid motion. It is said that with a two-man, each person only pulls at their turn and doesn’t push. However, this can result in a jerky sawing motion. If two people practice enough they can both pull and then push in a slightly circular motion similar to the one-man method and this keeps the motion seamless and fluid. Your main energy is in pulling but you push just enough to help your partners’ pull. Pushing too hard buckles the saw.
Khoke can cut about a cord of wood a day solo with a one-man crosscut. A cord is 4’ wide by 4’ tall by 8’ long. He’ll cut it, split it, load it on a wagon, drive it home from the woodlot, unload it and call it a day. This is not a novice amount of work. It takes a lot of work to build up the strength to do this. Khoke cuts enough wood to heat our home and also enough for his grandparents. One year just after Khoke wrapped up his annual two-week woodcut season, he was in for a routine checkup at the doctor. The nurse taking his blood pressure asked if he was an athlete. He said, “No, why?” She said his resting heart rate was 42, and usually only runners had that. Farming, the new (or rather, old) fitness program!
Khoke replaces the factory handle on his one-man cross cuts. He does not like the original one-man design, preferring the two-man handle style. It tends to force you to saw one-handed. So, he makes a post style handle to replace it with. The post handle that comes with the one-man saw is designed to use in conjunction with its regular handle, but it is too far forward to use with ease. It is also designed to take off and use at the other end of the saw to turn it into a two-man in a pinch.
Khoke’s modified handle is much more comfortable for him as he cuts large amounts of wood. He can cut two-handed this way, one above the other. He has a greater range of movement with his homemade handle.
A Quick Note on Stacking Wood
Once a person’s wood is cut it is best to stack it in a shed right away. Wood stacked in a shed will dry slightly slower due to less air circulation, but it will be a higher quality wood. First, it has no chance to rot and then on top of that the wood is better preserved. The sap in the wood has no chance to be washed or diluted by rain and doesn’t end up damaged by decomposition. The sap contains sugars and oils that when dry, are also added fuel in the wood.
If no shed is available, stacked wood is better than piled. With a stack there is less ground contact and better air circulation. The wood that touches the ground has more moisture and tends to rot easier.
The trouble with free standing stacks is they tend to topple. Wood shrinks as it dries, this shifts the pile which can then fall over. When making stacks, try to make them at least 2 stacks wide for better support and have some sort of stationary ends. Stacked between two trees or fence posts works great.
Typically, wood needs to air dry for at least 8 months before you burn it. Ideally it would be cut at least two years ahead for premium seasoned wood.
Beware of poison ivy vines. In the winter, the sap is concentrated in the vines and can cause a much more severe reaction than in the summertime. A little bit of experience speaking here.
Double Bit Axe
Every tool has a deliberate design. A double bit axe has a sharp narrow bit that flares out quickly. This is designed to cut into the tree and then blow the chips out of the way. This is a felling axe and works much better at chopping out the notch of a tree than a single bit limbing axe.
A double bit tends to have a better balance because of the equal weight on either side of the handle. Loggers of old would keep one side sharp and the other side dull. The sharp side was guarded carefully and only used to chop into wood. The dull side was used when chopping away brush and hitting the dirt.
Cutting Down a Tree with a Crosscut
When cutting down a tree be careful and be wise. Take all the safety precautions, do not cut down trees on windy days, think out your plan deliberately before you begin to cut. My father has been a logger and sawyer most of his life. We could talk all day long about accidents that have happened to both the novice and professional when cutting down trees. We could also talk all day long about car accidents. Keep things in perspective. Just about any activity has a measured amount of risk. Some activities have more responsibility and risk than others. Drive defensively and be careful when cutting down a tree.
When you select the tree that you want to cut down, walk all the way around the base of it looking up at the top to determine which way the tree is leaning. A perfectly straight tree will look like it can fall equally in each direction. Work with the lean of the tree. It will not fall directly backwards against its lean. You can fall it somewhat to one side or the other of the direction of the lean.
Take the dull side of your double bit and chop away any brush that may be in the way of the swing of the saw blade. Also make sure you have a clear exit open for when the tree begins to fall.
As you begin cutting with a two-man crosscut, try to keep your blade fairly level. Begin your cut on the side the tree is leaning, tipping it slightly towards the direction you wish to fall it. Not too much or your hinge won’t work as well as it might. You do not have to push very hard on the blade, let it take its own bite. Bearing down on the blade does not speed things up as fast as it wears you out.
You make this first cut a quarter to a third of the way into the tree. You are making the back cut. Then take the double bit, on the sharp side, and chop out a notch. This notch helps direct the fall of the tree by helping to create a hinge.
Now you take your saw to the other side of the tree and begin cutting towards your back cut. As you cut, be mindful of the hinge you are creating. The tree will fall before you meet the other cut. The strip of wood in the middle that is uncut as the tree falls is your hinge and it influences the fall of the tree. These fibers fold and then tear as the tree falls.
If you have a straight tree and your cuts are parallel to each other, making an even hinge will have your tree fall in the direction of the notch. That is what it is supposed to do anyway. Trees do not always follow the rules.
If your tree is leaning in any particular direction, it will try to fall in that direction. If you make an uneven hinge, it can influence the tree to fall towards the direction of the wider side of the hinge. When you make an angled hinge, the wider side adds resistance because it does not fold and tear as easily as the narrower side of the hinge. The tree can fall in an arc being pulled to one side by this resistance. This can be used to correct some lean in the tree. The more a tree leans and/or the more brittle the wood is, the harder it is to manipulate the fall of the tree.
Sometimes it helps to pound a wedge or two into the felling cut of the tree to help make sure the tree tips toward the direction you wish it to fall. This is only done when you have reason to believe the tree will be particularly hard to fall in that direction. You don’t want to try to manipulate the fall too much lest you over steer and have the tree tip farther than you wanted it to go.
If you do not chop a notch into your tree, it will fall where it wants to. The tree is more likely to split, and you will most likely have to cut it all the way through. This is not a big deal if it is just a firewood tree.
When the tree begins to fall, step back and away from the tree. Preferably not straight back, this can be dangerous. Sometimes as the top of a tree falls and hits the ground, it can pop the butt of the log up and then punch backwards several feet. It can also swing or roll to either side as it punches. I like to step back and behind another tree if I can.
Be wary of falling limbs. Dead branches can dislodge and fall, injuring a person. My brother once had his arm broken by a falling limb while he was cutting a tree down.
Felling a Tree with a One-Man Crosscut
Felling a tree with a one-man crosscut is harder than doing so with a two-man. However, one does not always find themselves with the luxury of company. Ammon says he prefers a shorter one-man when felling solo. A 3 to 3-1/2 foot saw being ideal. The longer the saw the more the tip will oscillate. Gravity tugs at the tip and as you thrust the saw back and forth the tip will vibrate and add resistance. With a one-man it is also harder to have a level cut. Usually both the back cut and the front cut tip down.
Ammon cautions that it is easy to unevenly circle the tree as you cut. It is naturally easier to apply more pressure on the handle side of the saw and thus cut deeper on the near side of the cut. You may need to measure both sides and keep track of the spacing to try to keep it equal as your cut narrows down on the hinge. If you create an unequal hinge you will want to make sure it was on purpose and not accidental, surprising you with where it lands.
Limbing a Tree with a Limbing Axe
A limbing axe has a long narrow bit designed for the most penetration. It has less resistance than other types of axes so that it can cut deep and slice a tree limb off.
Khoke can make short work of limbing (cutting the limbs off a felled tree). I am not sure that a person could limb a tree with a chainsaw faster than Khoke can with his axe. He can cut three and four inch diameter branches with one swing.
Note that to do this his axe is very sharp. Fresh off the file, it’s nearly sharp enough to shave with. Tree limbs are not the only limbs that can be cut with something that sharp. A leg is not as dense as a piece of wood. Khoke loans out his axe to very few people and I am not on that list. It is too dangerous for a novice to use. One year, Khoke was limbing a tree with his freshly sharpened axe. Because it was so much sharper than the previous day, it sliced through the wood with greater ease than he anticipated. He had applied too much force and it sliced off the limb and was headed for his leg without slowing down. Having only a hundredth of a second to respond he was unable to move his leg or stop his swing in time. He managed to save his leg by twisting his wrist and his shin was hit with the flat side of the axe instead of the blade. It still hurt as it bruised the bone but after he caught his breath and the stars subsided, he was able to resume his work instead of going to the hospital. Try to stand with the trunk of the tree between you and the limb you are aiming for. This will help prevent a possible accident like Khoke had. This position is not always possible so just be careful.
As a person begins limbing a tree, the larger branches are best removed with a bow saw or one-man. Anything four inches and down can be chopped off with a limbing axe. Starting at the butt end of the log and working towards the top, swing to hit the limb at a 20 to 35 degree angle to the tree. Cutting at this angle helps move the axe between the fibers of tree instead of directly across the grain in a flat cut across the branch. It’s like sharpening a pencil with a pocketknife versus trying to cut the end of a pencil straight off with a pocketknife.
Usually, you hit the limb from the butt end of the log swinging towards the top. Sometimes this angle is not possible, or because of the way the tree fell that side has too much compression, so you swing towards the inside of the limb, still maintaining an acute angle to your swing.
When I think of wedges, I think of them being used to split firewood. Yet Khoke rarely uses them for this. Generally anything too hard to split with a maul has a nasty habit of swallowing wedges. Letting them sink into the wood without splitting it apart.
Wedges have no handle and can be a little hard to pound on. They are not usually used on rounds that are easy to split. So, you hit the wedge with a sledgehammer and if the wedge cannot bite into the wood, it tips over and then continues to do this until it can be pounded in deep enough to hold itself erect. For wedging firewood rounds, Khoke prefers to use a junky maul head as a wedge. This has a handle to help stabilize the head as he drives it in with a sledgehammer.
The rare round that Khoke is unable to split with a maul is usually just left to rot before he uses wedges on it. They aren’t usually worth the time. Khoke uses wedges a lot more when felling a tree, splitting a rail or to wedge open a cut under compression.
When trying to manipulate the fall of a tree against the direction its leaning, it can be useful to use wedges at times. A tree will naturally try to fall in the direction it is leaning. You cannot tip a tree backwards against any real lean, but you can manipulate the fall, tipping it a little to the left or the right of the direction it is leaning. The more experience the logger has the more they can do with this. Using an uneven hinge and pounding in a wedge or two can help tip the tree in the direction you wish it to fall. In this case a junky maul does not work as a wedge. Its angle is too blunt to drive in. A true wedge has a better taper for this.
Khoke will also use wedges to split a fence post occasionally. When he made the cedar split rail fence around our yard, he used wedges to split the cedar logs.
Sometimes when Khoke cuts down a tree, it lands in such a way that the trunk has enough compression that it is difficult to saw through without pinching the saw blade. If he cannot undercut the log opposite its compressed side, then he will cut into the log as far as he can until it pinches his blade too much to continue. Then he’ll drive a wedge in as far as he can without hitting his saw and then continue sawing.
A very common and easy mistake to make is to cut until it pinches again and then hit the wedge with the intent to open the kerf (the cut) made by the saw further. If the log is small enough in diameter, it will work. If it is a large log, it will not.
If the log is very large, once you pound in that wedge and continue cutting, the weight and pressure on either side of the wedge increases dramatically. When you hit it with a sledge to pound it in further it doesn’t open the gap, it compresses the wood on either side of the wedge and can actually tighten the gap caused by the saw and leave that saw in the log a whole new kind of stuck. Even one little tap can do this.
What Khoke recommends instead is to remove the saw from the log before doing anything with the wedge. With a two-man saw this means unscrewing one handle to slide the blade out. A second or third wedge may be necessary to help open the gap in spite of the compression caused by the log weight and pressure. Now return the saw to the cut and finish.
Good wedges are hard to find. Antique stores and farm auctions can be good resources to find them. Gransfors Bruk sells new ones, and they likely share the top quality (and price) that comes with the rest of their tools. General Hardware wedges can be disappointingly low quality. Poor quality metal with a head that mushrooms easily.
Only use a sledgehammer to drive in a wedge. Do not use the poll end of your maul. No matter what the manufacturer says. This can mushroom the head of your maul over time. A sledgehammer is designed to hit metal on metal. Six and eight-pound sledgehammers are the most common and easy to use but Khoke prefers his 10-pound sledge.
Wedges are easy to lose or forget. It helps to paint them a loud color, so they stand out when you are gathering up your tools.
In time past when people could not afford to buy metal wedges, they used to cut wooden wedges out of the famously unsplittable Black Gum. Sometimes a man would have one metal wedge that he would use to open the cut and then used his wooden ones to follow it.
Setting a Saw
To set a saw, you are bending (just a little) the point of every other tooth to the right and then the alternate teeth to the left. This widens the groove made by the teeth so the saw fits in the cut without binding or pinching. The teeth widen the gap and then the raker comes through and chisels the wood between the teeth.
Not enough set and your saw will pinch as you are trying to cut. Too much set cuts a wide groove and works you unnecessarily hard. The wide groove then also has slop room and can wobble and make a curved cut. Ideally you want as little set as you can get away with.
A lot of old literature on setting a saw talk about hammer setting. There are a couple of ways of doing this but basically the saw is clamped flat to a table with the tips extending just over the edge. Then the alternating teeth are tapped with a hammer to bend them just ever so slightly. Then you use a spider gauge to measure how far off of flat the set is. You want each tooth set (bent) the same.
If a person is going to hammer set their saw, they should begin with small taps. Keep every tap consistent. Count how many taps it takes to set your tooth correctly, then use those exact taps for each tooth alternately down the line. Then flip the saw and do the same to the other side. Eventually you will get to where you can correctly tap it in one stroke. This takes much practice to develop the muscle memory for this. Khoke’s dad, Jeff, made a little brass hammer to use. Brass is a softer metal than the steel used for the saw and is less likely to damage the saw. A good hammer to use is a tinner’s riveting hammer.
Hammer setting is difficult to do especially for the beginner. One off-tap can cause too much set and it is harder to take the set out. The teeth can also be dented, damaged or even broken. When you see crosscuts at an auction with broken teeth, they were probably broken while the previous owner was trying to set the saw.
Khoke and Ammon use a handheld saw set. This tool is very user friendly. The dials are adjusted to clamp the tooth to the necessary set. Once you have set the dials on this handheld saw set, little if any adjustments are made to it and it can set many saws without needing to be adjusted again. That is assuming all the saws need to have the same set. Be careful to not have the tip of the tooth touch any metal on the saw set before you clamp, or it can mar the tooth.
Often saws can have some variance in the temper (hardness) of the steel from one saw to the next. A saw with a harder metal will be harder to file and harder to set, but once sharpened and set it will maintain its edge and set longer. So when Ammon has a saw like this, he said he will sometimes have to clamp the saw set not only once but three or four times per tooth. One has to be careful with these saws as they can be more brittle and then it is easier to break a tooth.
Saws are best set when the metal is warm. Ideally it would be done in the middle of the summer. Neither Khoke nor Ammon cut much wood in the summer if they can help it and find themselves doing necessary adjustments in the fall/winter when they are doing the bulk of their wood cutting. So, at this time they will bring the saw in the house and warm it by the stove before attempting any major adjustments. Minor adjustments can be made carefully on site when cutting wood. Cold metal is more brittle, and a broken tooth hinders the saw from cutting as well as it could. May make it a little jumpy.
Too much set can be corrected by laying the saw flat on a stump or piece of wood and then tapping the back of the tooth lightly with a hammer. This straightens a little of the bend in the tooth.
Once your saw is set, you shouldn’t have to reset it very often. Khoke doesn’t set his every year. If you go from cutting a lot of oak, elm, or other hardwoods to cutting cottonwood or pine, sure, you will have to adjust your set.
Again, softwood compresses easily, not just from the bite the teeth are taking out of the cut, but wood also springs back from the sides of the groove, pinching the blade. This means that you have to widen the groove that the saw slides through by adding more set to your saw.
Sharpening your Saw
A good sharp saw is a joy to use, as is any good sharp tool. When filing the teeth, one needs to be careful to maintain the angle of the tooth. This is both more important and harder to do than one realizes. It is easy to just sharpen the tip edge. What this will do however, in the span of four to six sharpenings, is widen the angle of the tooth to the point where it will no longer cut effectively. The tooth must then be remilled to correct the angle. This involves finding a machinist with a milling machine who is willing to do this for you. And then it takes a lot of hand filing and resharpening to make it usable again. If you pick up a new saw, or at least new-to-you saw, you may have to check the tooth and raker angles. The previous owner may not have maintained them as they sharpened it.
It is better to maintain the proper angle every time you file. Ammon recommends drawing a paper template to lay against the saw to help a person keep their finger on the correct angle on their saw teeth. Correct angle can mean something different from one saw to the next as you can see in the illustrations of the different saw types.
When sharpening the cutter teeth, Khoke files from the base of the tooth toward the tip. He has to make sure he puts enough pressure on the base as he is filing so that it maintains the angle of the tooth. The teeth are set opposite of each other, so he sharpens every other tooth down the line and then flips the saw and sharpens the alternate teeth.
For sharpening the saw, you use a standard metal file. These are used for filing unhardened steel. You should be able to pick up these files at any hardware store. A good file can last five to ten years depending on the care it has and how often it is used. That is, if you don’t let it become rusty, or dull it on hardened steel.
Some people like to swag the rakers before they sharpen their saws. Again, rakers scrape out the ridge of wood left by the teeth that have been set to widen the cut. A raker looks like it has a V cut into a fairly straight tooth. As it is, it acts as a scraper. When you swag the raker, you curl the raker points slightly out towards the teeth on either side of it. Now the raker points act as a chisel and cut the wood out. This creates less resistance as you saw and that of course makes it easier.
The rakers need a certain height in relation to the tooth. Generally, when you sharpen your saw, you have to lower and then resharpen the rakers. Just as your saw is set in accordance to how soft or hard the wood is, so your raker height varies as well. You’ll need a raker gauge and maybe a caliper. A caliper is a machining tool that measures to the hundred-thousandth of an inch.
A lot of the gauges and tools that are made to maintain a crosscut are hard to come by. Khoke’s father made his own raker gauge. He took a length of brass flat stock a quarter inch thick by a half inch wide by about three inches long. In the middle of this he drilled a hole and threaded it with a tap and then was able to screw a short bolt into it. This bolt would then be screwed in and set at the correct height where he needed the rakers to be. It was made of brass because that is a softer metal than the saw teeth and would not mar them while he was using the gauge. The ends of the gauge rested on the teeth on either side of the raker with the bolt centering on the raker. If the ends of the gauge rocked it meant that the rakers were too high and needed to be lowered. He then filed the raker tips shorter until they were the correct height.
If your rakers are too short, don’t worry about fixing it right away. It will correct itself after a time or two of sharpening the teeth. Short rakers leave a thin wood shaving and add resistance when cutting due to the friction from the extra uncut wood between the set of the teeth.
Rakers that are too long try to cut deeper than the teeth are penetrating. This makes the saw jumpy and pulls out what is called “whiskered” shavings. A raker set correctly pulls out shavings with clean cut edges. Whiskered shavings, because the raker is cutting deeper than the teeth, has torn edges, not cut. Like the difference between a paper cut with scissors and a paper folded and torn on the folded edge. When you see these whiskered edges on your shavings you know you are working harder than you have to.
So, what is the correct raker depth? This again depends on the wood you are cutting. The more the wood springs back from compression, the shorter the rakers need to be. Really hard or dry wood may need to have the rakers set at 0.008 inches (this is where those calipers come in), and a very soft wood may need to have the rakers at a depth of as much as 0.030”. It is better to start on the long side, try a few strokes, check the shavings and adjust as necessary. A good place to start is around 0.012” and shorten from there if necessary.
Now that the rakers have been filed shorter, they have flat tops on their points. The V on the inside of these rakers needs to be filed. The angle on the inside of these rakers needs to be maintained. It is not as critically important as the angle on the teeth, but the more obtuse the angle becomes the duller the raker will be. However, if the angle is too acute, the raker points can be weak and break easier.
Every four to five years or so Khoke will check to see if the teeth on his saw need jointed. Over the course of several filings, one can easily file the teeth unevenly resulting in some teeth ending up shorter than others. Having uneven teeth can make your saw jumpy and can also cause your cut to curve.
Jointing the saw corrects the height of the teeth. The teeth of a saw are stamped out in an arc and not a straight line. There is a tool called a ‘jointer’ used to correct the cutter tooth height.
The jointer has a flat upright side, the top of the jointer fits a standard flat file. There is a screw in the bottom center that applies pressure to the file and bends it slightly to give it the necessary curve. Once the file is clamped in correctly you secure your saw in a saw vise and then run the file in the jointer over the teeth.
After a couple strokes you look at your teeth and the shiny flattened tips show your longer teeth and the ones with an untouched point are your shorter teeth. You want to file the teeth down to a uniform height, meaning every tooth will end up showing a touch from the file. You do not want to file any more than necessary. If you have broken or chipped teeth that are much shorter than the others, do not try to lower all the teeth to meet this height, just skip these. You will shorten the overall life of your saw and it isn’t worth it. You will work down to it eventually; the saw is still usable in the meantime as long as you don’t have too many broken teeth.
In a pinch Khoke has done a quick jointing of his saw without a jointer. He pops the wooden handle off his file and runs the file flat over the arc of the teeth. It is harder to be precise and one can flatten the arc of the saw or put uneven pressure on the file on one end of the saw versus the other.
Now you are going to have to reshape your points. The more uneven the teeth were the more work you have to do refiling the points. Be careful to maintain the angle of the tooth. File from the base of the tooth to the point until it once again has the correct shape, sharpness and angle.
Buying a Crosscut
This is assuming you are buying a used one. Wandering through a farm or consignment auction or an antique store, it isn’t uncommon to find old crosscuts. Which saw do you buy and which do you leave there?
By now you know the difference between the tooth types so that narrows it down. Many saws will have flaws that came first from use, then from age and finally neglect. Some of these flaws can be corrected and some not.
Khoke checks the teeth first. Is it a tooth type he likes? His preference is the Champion tooth. Next he looks to see if all the teeth are there and what shape they are in. If they have been sharpened much, inspect how worn the teeth are, how well the tooth angle was maintained, and also the gullet depth. If the gullets are shallow and the saw needs milled to regullet it, then it will take a lot of work to get it up and running.
Is the saw a length that may work for you? Khoke prefers longer saws. Ammon has and uses long saws but picks up good short ones too. He has a string of sons who like to cut wood with dad. He also prefers a short one-man when felling a tree solo.
Ammon recommends examining the saw for kinks. Places where the blade is bent. A saw with kinks may need to be hammered to correct these. Lay the saw flat and run your hand across the plane of the blade, feeling for bumps. The Crosscut Saw Manual instructs how to hammer out kinks.
You can also hold the saw upside-down, tipping it to look down the teeth at the set. If the set is really onesided or skewed it can take a bit of work to correct. But this is workable.
Rust is not a big deal. When you bring your new-to- you saw home you’ll want to sand the rust away until the blade is smooth. Ammon likes to oil his saw with a little motor oil but Khoke doesn’t oil his saws. You will want to keep your working saw free of rust or it will not slide smoothly through the wood, and adds resistance to your stroke.
If the saw does not have handles you will have to make or buy new ones. The Crosscut Saw Company sells replacement handles. They even offer what is called a “western handle.” This looks very much like Khoke’s homemade one-man post handle.
If you wish to get into using a crosscut, it would be helpful to have a Crosscut Saw Manual. It has a lot of images that better illustrate some of the points I tried to explain. The USDA graciously offers a free online copy of it. You can download and print a free pdf of the Crosscut Saw Manual at the website below. You can also write to the address below for a copy. I don’t know but you probably would have to pay something for shipping and printing.
USDA FS, Missoula Technology and Development Center
5785 Hwy. 10 West Missoula, MT 59808–9361
Another great resource is the Crosscut Saw Company. They do sell new crosscut saws, but most importantly, they sell the tools to maintain the crosscut such as jointers, gauges and saw sets.
Crosscut Saw Company
P.O. Box 787, Seneca Falls, NY 13148
Send $1 to mail you a catalog ($3 overseas).
The Swedish company Gransfors Bruk sells top quality axes and mauls, you can visit their website for more information, www.gransforsbruk.com/en/. They have quite a few retailers here in the USA.
Highland Woodworking offers mail order catalogs. Write or call them to get one.
1045 North Highland Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306
I have to admit, felling trees is not on my favorite activity list. Yet when Khoke needs to cut down a few trees I am not reluctant to volunteer myself to “hold up the other end of the saw” for him. First off, it is easier to cut down a tree with a two-man than with a one-man. Second, I have a pet belief that doing things outside my comfort zone enriches my life. I see life as a crayon box. Life experiences each bring a new shade to add to one’s box. Many are shades we love but the ones we don’t love so much bring depth and contrast. Choosing to heat our home with wood cut by hand is one of the things we do in our life to not only add depth and contrast but colors we love as well.